Monday, June 30, 2008

Dispatch 38 Les Marquises

May 25 - June 30
French Polynesia constitutes several groups of islands: The Society Islands including, among others, Tahiti and Bora Bora, Les Iles Marquises, Les Tuamotus, Iles Gambiers, and the Astral Islands. It is truly a beautiful paradise. At a similar latitude in the Southern Hemisphere as Hawaii is in the Northern Hemisphere, the climate is like Hawaii—sunny, warm, humid, trade winds to cool the air and frequent rain squalls to keep the hillsides verdant and lush. The people are Polynesian, like the native Hawaiians, friendly, brown-skinned, often tattooed and with their own language, a version of a Polynesian language. Here in les Marquises, they refer to it as “Marquisien”, “hello” is Ka-oh-ha, similar to Aloha. The official language is French and the locals speak Marquisien, French and often some English.

The Marquises are “newer” geologically and have no reef system surrounding them, similar to the Hawaiian islands. By contrast, the Tuamotus are reefs that enclose a lagoon with no central island (the island having slowly sunk into the sea) and the Societies (including Tahiti) are islands with a fringing reef. For a boater, this is significant because, first, it means the navigation is simple in the Marquises—if there’s a bay that is shallow enough to anchor, you can pull right into it. In the Societies and Tuamotus, we will have to go through a pass in the reef, often with significant currents, to enter the lagoon area. Second, the Marquises anchorages are almost uniformly rolly because they have no reef to stop the swell of the ocean. Often we bow and stern anchor to keep the boat facing the swells.

We arrived in the mid-morning after 29 days at sea. The island we first came to was Hiva Oa—volcanic, steep hillside covered with green, flowers everywhere once we were on land, beautiful. Upon arrival there were a dozen boats in the anchorage, many boats were ones we knew from the Galapagos and from having spoken on the radio nearly daily. We went out of our way to meet each other and spend time together to compare notes. It was very fun. The check-in process was not quite as smooth as we would have liked but it went fine ultimately. It’s been fun to speak French, a blast actually because my French is still so much better than my Spanish ever was having learned French when I was so much younger.

In the Marquises, there are archaeological sites in many of the anchorages with “tikis”, small stone statues, somewhat similar to the famous stone statues of Easter Island. The Polynesians populated Hawaii, many of the other islands in this area, Easter Island and New Zealand. Polynesians were cannibals—they ate enemies they killed in warfare. The famous and brilliant navigator Captain Cook met his end by being killed and eaten by the Hawaiian natives. Lucky for us, cannibalism has gone away although there are often nervous and politically inappropriate jokes among the cruisers. (If one is invited to dine with a local family, the joke is often whether we are eating or being eaten!) The two main threats of these islands for us today are wallet depletion and death by insect bites. As all goods are shipped here and, other than baguettes which are subsidized and cost about 60 cents, food costs a fortune. Ditto for gasoline and diesel. It’s almost better to just pretend you can’t figure out the exchange rate and just buy what you need. As to the insects, they are infamous—the “no-no’s” of the Marquises are so dreaded that ships from here are fumigated before arriving at, say, Hawaii, to avoid having these insects exported elsewhere. They are tiny, take a hunk of skin with their bite and leave a burning, itching, blistering little bump that does little for a good night’s sleep. There are garden variety mosquitoes and at least one other biting fly. Hey, no paradise is perfect!

On Hiva Oa, we walked all over, visited a petroglyph site, visited Paul Gauguin’s grave and got our “city” fix (ie., internet, grocery shopping). We then went to Tahuatu, a nearby island where we had a couple days of lovely snorkeling. We tried to fight 20-25 knot headwinds on a couple occasions to get back to Fatu Hiva (45 miles to windward), an island famous for the Kontiki landing there, but we just couldn’t stand the seas (up to 8-10 feet) and finally decided to move on. We spent several days waiting out the winds in a lovely valley on the north side of Hiva Oa. The village there had no stores, just people living their quiet lives. The houses and yards and streets were immaculate, lined with flowering plants and the people were lovely. We were given handfuls of fruit from the trees, the grapefruit, papaya, lemons. We picked guavas, lemons, oranges from that valley and another we hiked to. It was nearly an idyllic existence. The hike was through a pristine valley where goats periodically crashed through the woods, and ended on a gorgeous white sand beach with turquoise water where we cooled off before heading back.

We then headed north to Oa Pou, an overnight trip of 70 miles with fair winds. That island is spectacular with rocky spires and the villagers were delightful. We watched a group of girls rehearsing their dance number for the upcoming July dance festivals. The dancing was hula-like, story-telling through body motions. The church in town was stunning with carved wood—a specialty of these islands. We bought a tapa painting here. They are made by beating wood bark until it is flat like parchment and then painting Polynesian designs on it. The art of the islands is beautiful in wood, painting, tattoes, carvings in stone and other materials.

Next we headed to Nuku Hiva, the largest island with the largest settlement. First we went to Daniel’s Bay, the one time setting of one of the first Survivor shows. We had been led to believe that the TV show had ruined this idyllic spot, but we were happy to learn that it was as wonderful as ever and that there are no signs of previous celebrity. The anchorage itself is spectacular—high cliffs, green hillsides. Because there is a sharp turn at the entrance, one goes from wild waves breaking on the rocks on all sides to flat calm, nearly a perfect place to stay. We walked up the valley to a 2000 foot waterfall (not much water because it’s been dry here). On the way back we were spontaneously invited to lunch by an older couple, joining some boater friends who were already there. We were gifted fruit by the couple and told to return the next day to get more. They served us beef in coconut milk, breadfruit prepared 3 different ways, taro (like potatoes) and fruit.

The villagers from what we have seen live comfortable lives. Rumor has it that the islanders enjoy a government stipend from the French government which allows them to afford the prices which even we find steep. The couple who invited us to lunch had an open air house on beautifully maintained grounds. They grew grapefruit, oranges, limes, starfruit, breadfruit, coconut, papayas, mangoes, guava, bananas and noni. Noni is a fruit that looks like a potato and is harvested, mashed up and sent to the US where it is used in various elixirs for both drinking and applying to the skin. It reportedly has healing properties. It is, or was, big money for the locals, but we gathered that Martinique began growing the noni and has undercut the price these islanders were getting. The couple had a TV and satellite dish (the dishes are ubiquitous even in towns without a single store or other service like this one) and a very large solar panel array with many batteries to supply their energy needs. Many new model trucks and SUV’s are seen on the streets. In the valleys we visited that are without “services”, the life is very much a subsistence one. The people take a boat to the nearest place to get supplies a couple times/month. Otherwise, they live off their land—food consists of goat (readily abundant in the woods—we saw a group of men return in their pirogue—canoe with a pontoon and outboard engine—with a goat they had shot that day), pig (raised in the homestead but not as pets), beef, taro, breadfruit and various other vegetables only if they grow them, and tons of fruit. It is a bit confusing that they have many luxuries, yet the pace is slow, the supplies arrive at unreliable time intervals, but it is not a third world country.

The fruit grows in excess here. The only way to get fruit actually is from the friendly villagers, either as a gift or by trade. It is not sold in the stores, we gather because everyone grows their own. The highlight of the local fruit is the pamplemousse, the local grapefruit. This fruit is larger than our familiar grapefruits and infinitely sweeter. It is so juicy we bring it on every hike to supplement our fluid intake.

From Taiohae, the largest town on Nuku Hiva, we walked to two archaeological sites, visited their, also gorgeous, church, enjoyed internet from the boat (!),bought delicious farm grown fresh produce at early morning markets in town, and enjoyed a traditional pig roast and dance presentation. The pig was steamed in a pit in the ground for hours and lifted out for our photo op at the time of dinner. The food was mixed—the pig was delicious, the goat in coconut milk was also delicious. We enjoyed poisson cru (sounds deadly but is raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk) and a banana pudding. What we tried hard to enjoy was the breadfruit cooked up in several ways. We’ve now tried the breadfruit in about 5 different preparations and have heartily concluded that it is not, despite what the Polynesians believe, a food product. We spent hilarious long minutes at dinner trying to come up with other uses for breadfruit—home insulation, packing materials for delicate electronics, mattress stuffing, perhaps it induces some altered state of consciousness if smoked we wondered? The dance that night was done to hypnotic drumming and featured men in grass skirts whose movements looked decidedly warlike or hunter-like. The women had a smaller role in this dance but had the most amazing hip twitching movement. Richard was mesmerized. In short, we’ve had a wonderful time.

We then visited the anchorage and village of Taipivai, made famous by the Herman Melville adventure when he jumped a whaling ship and lived there. Our last anchorage was a stunning, calm bay filled with coral which afforded us beautiful snorkeling as well as gorgeous hikes. The hike over the pass to the next village brought us to the largest and most impressive archaeological site yet—very cool.

Lest you all think life is nothing but drinking rum drinks with little umbrellas in the sun after a day of snorkeling coral reefs, we remind you that there are always boat projects especially after the miles of sailing we’ve done. The boat has decided she, too, will be Polynesian, and she grows a grass skirt at the waterline every week which has to be scrubbed vigorously if we want to maintain any boat speed at all. We’ve just felt no need to report on the many projects or let them spoil our time in paradise. Some days when the watermaker AND refrigerator decide to act up, it brings us down. Sigh. Time to move on to the next brand of paradise, the coral atolls, the Tuamotus.